Known unknowns and unknown unknowns


“As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don’t know
We don’t know”.
—Feb. 12, 2002, Department of Defense news briefing

John Horgan challenges scientism embraced by Stephen Pinker.

He explains what Pinker said and where they agree:

Pinker faults Humists for accusing scientists of “scientism,” which could be defined as excessive trust in science. Attempting rhetorical jujitsu, Pinker suggests that science, because it is such a uniquely self-critical and successful generator of knowledge, deserves all our trust. Hence scientism is justified and we should all embrace it!

Now, before I knock Pinker further, let me acknowledge where our views overlap. First, we both believe in the attainability of truth and progress, and we agree that science is by far our most powerful means of understanding and improving our world.

After addressing that scientism is not without danger, (Eugenics and Social Darwinism as outgrowths of it.) he offers other concerns:

…even a casual survey of modern science—and of this blog–reveals the degree to which science continues to serve the interests of powerful groups. The U.S. health care industry delivers lousy service at exorbitant prices, arguably because it is more concerned with profits than with patients. Modern psychiatry has become little more than a marketing branch of the pharmaceutical industry.

Postmodernism is, in a sense, simply another expression of a truism of science journalism: If you want to understand modern debates about climate, energy, genetically modified food, economic equality or military policies, you should follow the money. Money certainly doesn’t explain everything—and just because a group is rich and powerful doesn’t mean that it’s corrupt–but it explains a lot.

All of this provokes a lot of questions. Among them are:

  • What are the strengths and limitations of scientific “knowing”?
  • How do we value and use other ways of knowing?
  • How do we deal with the unknown? Should we always assume that there are “unknown unknowns”?

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